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Viviane Reding Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship EU Citizens' Rights Conference – The way forward Brussels, 1 July 2010

European Commission - SPEECH/10/353   01/07/2010

Other available languages: none

SPEECH/10/353

Viviane Reding

Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship

Effectively tackling obstacles faced by EU Citizens: the need for a new approach and a new ambition

EU Citizens' Rights Conference – The way forward

Brussels, 1 July 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today is a very important day. First of all, because the Belgian Presidency of the European Union starts today and I am delighted that Belgium's Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck has agreed to open today's conference together with me to mark this moment. Stefaan and I both agree that during the next six months, we must ensure that not institutions, but the citizen must take centre stage in all EU policies. We have new rules of the game with the Lisbon Treaty that enable us to do much more for citizens than we could ever do before, notably in the field of Justice policies. But we are also facing one of the most serious economic crises of this century. It is therefore of key importance that in coping with this crisis, and in making use of our new Treaty, we always bear in mind what our European Union is here for: to serve our citizens.

Today is also a very important day for the EU's Justice policies. Because as of today, 1 July 2010, the European Commission has created, by a decision proposed by President Barroso to the College of 27 Commissioners, its own Directorate-General for Justice. This is an important policy signal from the Commission. It is first of all recognition of the importance of EU policies in the area of Justice. You all know that these policies started many years ago under the so-called "third pillar" – a mechanism of cooperation between Member States that gave only marginal say to the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice. The Treaty of Lisbon has changed this for the better, and DG Justice will be working hard under my command to make sure that our citizens will see concrete results of this institutional improvement. The creation of a DG Justice, which is managed separately from the Commission's Home Affairs policies, is at the same time a sign of maturity of EU policies in this area. It is a very normal situation in our Member States that there is both a Ministry of Home Affairs and a Ministry of Justice. Both Ministries traditionally see things from a different starting point: the Home Affairs Ministry normally is more interested in enhancing the security of citizens; while the Justice Ministry has its focus on strengthening and safeguarding the rights and freedoms of citizens. At the end of the day, a sound policy needs to ensure that both perspectives are reconciled. In our Member States, this reconciliation between security and freedom is done at the political level, between the Ministers, as it cannot and should not be decided by one administration alone. It is good news for our citizens that as of today, we will have a similar situation at EU level. In the future, when we will talk about sensitive civil liberties issues such as data retention, Passenger Name Records, wire tapping legislation or proposals for blocking Internet access for public purposes, citizens can be assured that there is now a place for them to go in Brussels that will look after their interests. There will in future be a constructive dialogue between the new DG Justice and the new DG Home Affairs on the best way forward to defend civil liberties and to ensure that citizens are not forgotten when the EU tries to safeguard important public interests; but that fundamental rights and citizens' rights are an integral part of all EU policies. It will take us some time to arrive at the right balance. But I am very sure that together with my colleague Cecilia Malmström, the very citizen-oriented Home Affairs Commissioner, and her team in DG HOME, DG Justice and I will arrive at the right balance, in the interest of our citizens.

Last but not least, today is an important day because you have all accepted my invitation to discuss the best way forward on EU Citizenship. I am well aware of the criticism of Members of the European Parliament that over the past years, the EU institutions, including the Commission and our Member States have neglected EU Citizenship. "A lot of talk, but no action", was the key message the European Parliament gave the Commission when it commented on the progress made on Citizenship on 20 March 2009, before I took office. When President Barroso nominated me last November, he asked me to change this situation. He asked me to ensure that EU Citizenship becomes more than idle words. But that it becomes a concrete reality in the daily life of EU Citizens. By creating my portfolio in the Commission, President Barroso showed from the beginning that he meant what he was saying. He not only added the word "Citizenship" to the title of my portfolio; but at the same time he entrusted me with concrete policy instruments which will allow me, over the next years, to fill the notion of Citizenship with concrete results. These policy instruments include the responsibility for the free movement within the European Union; civil justice and contract law; consumer legislation, starting from the Package Travel Directive and reaching to the proposal for a Consumer Rights Directive; data protection; the rights of the child; gender equality and anti-discrimination legislation; and also the responsibility for ensuring an effective application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

This huge bundle of policy instruments of course needs to be used in a coherent and strategic manner. For me, this means that from the beginning, our policies in this area must follow a very clear vision of what EU Citizenship means. Let me elaborate on this.

At the early stages of the European project, when Member States created the European Economic Community in 1957, individuals were primarily regarded as economic actors. By introducing Union citizenship, the Maastricht Treaty started a new process paving the way for a Citizens' Europe. On 1 November 1993, thanks to EU Citizenship, Europeans acquired new rights, in addition to their status as nationals of a Member State: the right to free movement, regardless of nationality; the right of consular protection in third countries; the right to send petitions to the EU institutions or to address a complaint to the European Ombudsman. The most important new right created at the time was certainly the right of all EU citizens to participate in local and European Parliament elections, wherever they reside in the European Union.

Since Maastricht, EU Citizenship has demonstrated its innovatory and dynamic character:

  • the EU legislator has translated these new rights progressively into secondary law, expressing EU citizens' rights in legislation;

  • the European Court of Justice has made EU Citizenship into a source of rights of its own for all those using their right to free movement within the EU;

  • and most recently, the Treaty of Lisbon has revitalised EU Citizenship and added new elements, by recognising the right of citizens to participate in the democratic life of the Union, by introducing the “citizens' initiative”, by giving the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights the status of primary law, and most important, by strengthening the powers of the European Parliament, which is, after all, the only body at EU level which is directly elected by all EU citizens.

After the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, EU Citizenship now needs to progress from a concept enshrined in the Treaties to a tangible reality in citizens’ daily lives.

There is a clear need for a new ambition on EU Citizenship.

According to 2008 estimates, 11.3 million European citizens live in a different Member State than their Member State of origin. Many more have cross-border experiences when travelling, studying or working, possibly getting married or divorced, buying or inheriting property, voting, receiving medical treatment or just shopping online from companies in other EU countries. For instance, there are 16 million marriages involving a cross-border aspect. 2 million European students have studied in another Member State since the launch of the Erasmus programme in 1987.

To me, these figures, though impressive, still appear to be relatively low when we compare them to the total of 500 million citizens in our European Union. There are a number of reasons for this. When asked what the main obstacles are to working in another EU country, 50% of Europeans cite language barriers and family considerations that prevent them from moving abroad. In addition, the lack of information about the opportunities available and administrative hassles plays a very important role in this context.

Let me take another example: half of EU households have an internet connection, but only 12% of EU web users feel safe making transactions on the internet: tellingly, more than 1 in 3 consumers declare that they are wary about buying from another EU country at a distance or while travelling because they are uncertain about their rights as consumers.

It is clear to me that we must address remaining gaps and obstacles to free movement as a matter of priority and make sure that citizens can fully enjoy their rights under the Treaties regardless of where they chose to reside or where they chose to source goods and services.

In his political guidelines of 3 September 2009 for the new Commission, President Barroso stressed the need to reinforce EU Citizenship. He specifically called for efforts to revitalise the link between citizens and the EU, by giving real effect to their rights. President Barroso notably called for removing the numerous obstacles citizens face when they try to source goods and services across national borders in the EU. The EU institutions should ensure that EU citizens are able to make use of their rights as EU citizens in the same way as they use their rights as nationals of their respective Member States.

This is precisely what my portfolio, Justice, Fundamental rights and Citizenship, is about. EU Citizenship is the essential link all Europeans have with the European Union. It provides them with rights and benefits in many areas of their daily lives. It is my ambition to make these rights tangible and to progressively remove all the obstacles which citizens still encounter when trying to use their rights across national borders. Citizens need to be confident that their rights are upheld in practice; and that they are enforced effectively.

For my policies for strengthening EU citizenship, fortunately there exists a very good blueprint: the "The citizen and the application of Community law" report of 8 June 2008, written by the Honourable Member of the European Parliament Alain Lamassoure, who is with us here today, and I am very grateful for this. President Barroso gave me this report when he nominated me as Commissioner and told me: "Viviane, this is a brilliant piece of work. Alain Lamassoure got it very right. Please take his ideas up when you start as Commissioner for Justice and Citizenship."

In his report Alain Lamassoure indeed brought into sharp relief the patchwork of barriers Europeans still face when seeking to exercise their rights across national borders. Alain Lamassoure also called for a new EU approach in this context. He argued very compellingly that the EU institutions need to overcome the current "organigramme logic" or sectoral thinking in order to remove these barriers.

To give you a concrete example why this is important: Have you ever tried to move to another country in the EU and then to register your car in that country? This is the moment when our citizens – after having filled in numerous pieces of paper and having been to at least four different national administration offices – can see and experience very concretely what "red tape" means. They also see that EU citizenship does not work today.

Why has nobody effectively addressed this issue in the past? Because in the Commission, at least two, if not five Directorates-General would have to be involved in this, as it requires a look at legal, tax and customs matters all at the same time. In Parliament, several committees would be in charge of this. And probably at least three Councils of Ministers will claim a competence for this matter. This is exactly the point where the "organigramme logic", as Alain Lamassoure has called it, needs to be overcome. We need to overcome the bureaucratic "cloisonnement" and make concrete and pragmatic progress in the interests of our citizens. I have therefore already spoken with my colleague Algirdas Šemeta, who is inter alia the Commissioner for Taxation and Customs. We intend to work very closely together to drastically simplify the current national procedures for car registration in the course of this mandate.

To make progress in the direction of a global, result-oriented spirit on citizenship that Alain Lamassoure has very rightly called for, I have created, within the Commission, an Inter-service Steering Group that coordinates the work on citizenship across Directorates-General, to ensure coherence and speedy results. In October this year, the result of this work will be published in a "Report on the practical obstacles to effective EU Citizenship". In his Political Guidelines, President Barroso has called for a comprehensive report on this issue. The report is meant to cover the most important obstacles citizens are facing in the EU during their lifecycle, whether as residents in another country, people who want to marry or get divorced, as students, as tourists, as consumers who want to buy a product from another EU Member States via the Internet, or as people who want to exercise their right to vote in local or European Parliament elections. The Citizenship Report will also include the 12 most important obstacles which the European Commission will tackle over the next two years. The Citizenship Report will just be the beginning. Legislative and enforcement action will follow swiftly afterwards.

I would like to mention a few further examples of obstacles which we could address in the Citizenship Report:

  • Let me start with the right to free movement and residence. This is one of the cornerstones of the European project. It is one of the most well-known and cherished rights of EU citizens. Recent surveys1 show that almost 9 out of 10 EU citizens know they have this right. Many of them use it at some point in their lives: close to 1 in 5 Europeans (17%) envisage working abroad in future.

  • Union citizens and their third country family members still face cumbersome and costly administrative procedures and unacceptable delays when moving to another Member State. Life partners and family members other than core family members of Union citizens still encounter serious problems having their rights of entry and residence recognised.

  • Almost 40% of all requests for help and complaints from EU citizens addressed to the SOLVIT problem-solving network were residence-related issues, despite the existence of a substantial legal framework guaranteeing EU citizens these rights. This confirms not only the significance of this right and the EU citizen's awareness of it, but also the persistence of obstacles.

  • The overwhelming majority (almost 96%) of European citizens who wish to work in another EU country expect recognition of their qualifications to be easy and automatic. However, on a European-wide average, only 70% of recognition requests succeed quickly. Under the current EU rules automatic recognition of qualifications applies only to 7 out of more than 800 professions and where it does apply, citizens are confronted with administrative malpractices, costs and delays.

  • The potential benefits of labour mobility are, however, important: according to Alain Lamassoure's report, on average, a citizen seeking a job in another Member State has almost a 60% chance of finding a job within a year whereas the chances for a jobseeker who stays in his own Member State are only 33%. Free movement clearly has a positive impact on economic growth: during the years 2004-2007, additional mobility from the 10 Member States which joined the European Union in 2004 increased the GDP of the Union by almost 0,30%.

  • Europeans working across borders suffer a great deal of frustration because of the complexity and the gaps of the system for portability of their social security rights: the differences between national social and labour laws, coupled with poor cooperation between national social security institutions, result in delays and difficulties in exchanging citizens' social security information.

  • Notwithstanding the success of exchange programmes throughout the Union, students wishing to study abroad using the diploma obtained in their home country or to return to their home country to work after having studied abroad still face numerous obstacles when it comes to recognising their diplomas or their study periods abroad. Due to the variety of education systems, national procedures for establishing whether a diploma gained in one Member State is equivalent to one gained in another can be time-consuming and frustrating.

  • Europeans who for instance inherit a family home in another EU country than their own may be obliged to pay taxes both in the country where the house is situated and in their country of residence.

  • There is a wealth of information, assistance and problem-solving networks at the EU level. However, almost 70% of Europeans ignore the existence of any of them, whilst citizens who know about them are confused about where to address their questions and what to expect.

It is very clear from these examples: if the EU wants to tackle these different types of obstacles, we will need to overcome the fragmentation and sectoral approach in EU policy-making. Only then will we be able to make sure that citizens can enjoy their rights and opportunities as European Union citizens in their everyday lives.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To take the pulse of European citizens and to better understand their concerns, needs and expectations, I have already taken several preparatory steps since the Barroso II Commission started its work on 10 February this year:

  • The Commission has launched several surveys, mapping out citizens' concrete experiences in terms of intra-EU mobility.

  • We also have carried out a broad public consultation, which ended two weeks ago, to give us a deeper understanding of the obstacles citizens face, including administrative and linguistic barriers, and to identify remedies to tackle them. These remedies include free movement of civil status documents, training local authorities about citizens' rights and even considering extending the length of unconditional residence when moving to another Member State.

  • Today's Conference is a further important milestone in the preparation of the Report. I hope that today – during the day and at the dinner tonight – I will hear many further ideas and possible initiatives which the Commission should take into consideration when starting a new era on EU Citizenship with the Citizenship Report in October.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To steer the Commission's ambitious work on Citizenship will be a truly Herculean task. Alain Lamassoure certainly knew what he was asking for when calling for the "décloisonnement" of approaches on Citizenship. This means overcoming administrative barriers not only for citizenship, but also within administrations, both national and European. I am therefore not at all surprised that President Barroso has entrusted this task to a female Commissioner. But even with all the trust in female talent, I am convinced that one woman alone is not enough to get the job done. This is why I have appointed another woman to help me with this challenging task: Françoise Le Bail is my new Director-General for the new Directorate-General Justice, and I am delighted that she is starting her new job today, with this conference on Citizenship.

I now wish you a successful conference. Françoise and my team will listen very carefully to what you all have to say. And you can be sure that no valuable idea will go unnoticed. If well formulated and practical, a good idea may even find its way directly into the Commission's Citizenship Report in October.

Thanks a lot for your attention.

1 :

Last Eurobarometer was carried out in May 2010.


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